CHARLESTON – West Virginia Gov. Earl Tomblin depends on a well-established and extensive vetting process to fill vacant judgeships, but he doesn’t make bench appointments blindly.
Jessica Tice, Tomblin’s director of communications, recently told The West Virginia Record that the governor has personally reviewed the recommendation of each of the 28 judges he’s appointed since his term began in 2010, even after they underwent the fine-toothed comb treatment of the Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission.
“He gives great weight to the recommendations of the JVAC and typically does not re-interview the candidates it recommends,” she said.
But he does review the recommendation and supporting documentation when it comes to his desk to ensure the commission got it right.
“He does review their applications, letters of recommendation, and background and ethics checks.”
The JVAC, which interviewed 175 candidates for the 28 appointments, follows West Virginia Code 3-10-3a and the Practices and Procedures Guidelines when it vets and makes recommendations for vacant judgeships.
After a vacancy occurs, the JVAC, which comprises of eight members, all appointed by the governor, holds an organization meeting to begin the process.
At the same time, the JVAC and governor’s office issues a notice of the vacancy through the State Bar “and other channels” soliciting applications and letters of recommendation.
Candidates are required to undergo State Police and Supreme Court criminal background checks, as well as a review of any ethics complaints that may have been lodged in the candidate’s career.
If those come up clean, the candidate advances to the interview round and is called before the commission for in-person questioning.
“Gov. Tomblin also uses the criteria set forth in the guidelines in evaluating candidates and making appointments,” Tice said. “He also receives an assessment from his general counsel, who participates in the JVAC interviews.”
The commission is required to submit a list of no more than five nor less than two best qualified persons to the governor within 90 days of the vacancy.
The code calls for the governor to appoint four members of the public who aren’t practicing attorneys or judges, and four practicing attorneys or lower-court judges gleaned from a 10- to 20-person list supplied by the Virginia State Bar Board of Governors.
It also requires that no more than four appointed members of the commission can be the member of the same political party, and no more than three members can be residents of the same congressional district.
There is no pay for serving on the commission, though basic travel expenses are reimbursed for its members.
The code also outlines public-meetings requirements and compels the commission to adopt its policies and procedures in writing, and to file those documents with the secretary of state’s office.
Tice said the JVAC’s process is solid and trustworthy, and its advice to this point has been nothing but sound. Only one time has the governor had to reverse one of its recommendations.
“Gov. Tomblin has always appointed from the JVAC’s recommended list,” she said, “except in one instance where he appointed the winner of an intervening election.”